Jennifer Wanyi Jia is the founder of Emporsand, a social venture started in 2019 with the aim of empowering women through the provision of sustainable and affordable menstrual products. The disposable pads, which will be sold cheaply to women in developing countries, are to be made from the offcuts of local fashion houses.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I have always been interested in starting something and building it group up. I have been involved in entrepreneurship throughout my time at the University of Cambridge. While participating the Royal Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge for Sustainability, we discussed how much fast fashion contributes to waste, and how textiles are not accessible for those suffering from period poverty.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
When people think about entrepreneurship, they think about ideas and missions without contextualizing with feedback from customers, investors, or stakeholders. Entrepreneurship is about materializing an idea into action. Implementation is central to entrepreneurship. Once you have done what you initially set out to do in your vision, you have to obtain measurables to make sure that your actions are aligned with your chosen mission.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
If you can’t kill and idea, then it is worth pursuing. Ideas can die anytime between creation to implementation. If you are not able to kill an idea, then it is a good indication that the business can persist. We were lucky with Emporsand that people were interested in our idea and keen to invest and work with us. The consistent feedback was critical to our success. Moreover, women’s health has destigmatized over the last 5 to 10 years. If we were too ahead of our time, the business would not have survived.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
First, you need to communicate well. Business requires you to articulate a very convincing story about your business, your position as the leader, and the reason why your audience should care. Second, you need to be resilient. There are a lot of setbacks in starting a business, so you need to be able to readjust yourself after every challenge and move forward. Finally, it is important to be agile. Being agile means spotting opportunities for your business that you didn’t initially consider. Our plan with Emporsand is to use donated factory off-cuts from fashion houses with manufacturing based in India. However, if sourcing and distributing in Ethiopia is cheaper, then we will change our customer segmentation. Being able to spot opportunities and act flexibly is central to growth.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I don’t have one single favourite part, but two things come to mind. The first is speaking with other entrepreneurs and learning from those who can inspire me and change my way of thinking. The second is seeing the delivered impact of your business. Being able to meet the mission you set for yourself and your business and deliver what you promised to is the most rewarding part.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Melinda Gates. She is at the forefront of women’s health. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was set up, many of the initial projects were focused on issues waste treatment and sanitation. There was little to no focus on women’s health like the provision of birth control or prevention of child marriage. Melinda has driven the foundation into a new direction to address these neglected areas. Women are the anchor of communities and dictate the health of the family unit. Uplifting women can become beneficial to the entire village.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
So many questions, I wouldn’t know which to ask first! Mainly, I would want to talk to her about the compounding effect of helping women. Financially helping men or boys may increase their families’ earning, but helping women influences not only their immediate family, but also the elders they care for, the next generation, and the village. I would want to discuss how we go about measuring these effects, as well as, given that resources aren’t infinite, how we go about making the effects of interventions sustainable and long-lasting.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I think that would be finding out how receptive men have been to our business. I was expecting women to be enthusiastic, but it was a nice surprise to see how many men care. Fathers are interested because they have daughters, and brothers care because they have sisters. Period poverty is no longer a women’s issue, but a human issue.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Dealing with COVID was difficult last year. We didn’t know what to do so we spent too long waiting for the situation to change or become clearer. I learnt that it is always better to do something rather than nothing. Especially for a start-up, doing nothing is a mistake. Stalling will cause your business to lose momentum.
How have you funded your ideas?
We have raised from the Royal Academy of Engineering, McKinsey & Company Venture Academy, Downing Enterprise, and the SJL Foundation. We have not taken equity funding as this stage as it allows us more freedom to explore.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
As mentioned, the McKinsey & Company Venture Academy Competition, the SJL Foundation, and the student competition at the Royal Academy of Engineering.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? It’s cliché, but getting the right people for your business is very important. Find people who you can work well with logistically, and have the same mission in mind as you, otherwise you can end up working towards different things. The co founders must all be self-driven, it doesn’t work if one founder is carrying everything because then the business stops when they stop.
Finally you need to ensure that people are receptive to your vision and want it. A lot of people build something that they think is extraordinary, but it fails because to most people it is actually very ordinary.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
In general, women tend to get less credibility. They are not taken as seriously, even if they have the same credentials. That said, I haven’t come across any insurmountable challenges. It is very helpful to have a very good network around Cambridge, where women can champion each other.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Finding a network. It will make your business grow much faster.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
University can definitely instate more programmes to support women. Many women do not realize that they can pursue entrepreneurship as a profession. Planting the seed that entrepreneurship is a viable option can be quite powerful.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Just try it! There is no harming in testing the waters, and this could turn into the right path for you.